So stressed you could scream—loudly and wildly, while kicking and punching, or maybe wilting to the ground in a heap? Yeah, we get it: It seems to be going around. Americans' stress levels are nearly two times higher than what's considered safe. And the complications are enough to fray anyone's nerves: suppressed immune system; high blood pressure; elevated risk of stomach acid and ulcers; headaches, backaches, and neck-aches; colds; and even cancer. Stress is also linked to shortening of the telomeres, protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that shorten each time a cell dies. Research suggests that we want our telomeres to be as long as possible, because length is associated with a lower risk of developing cancer and heart disease, as well as a longer life.
"Everyone is stressed, and we've begun to think of that as normal, because we've gotten used to it," says psychotherapist Robert Friedman, author of How to Relax in 60 Seconds or Less. "We sometimes try to pretend it isn't there, but stress is a hidden killer."
Friedman, who's been teaching stress-management techniques since 1993, highlights three primary stressors: environmental, social, and physical. But worst of all? Our thoughts. He's gotten to know a number of "stress hearty" folks who don't get frazzled at all and, as a result, enjoy healthier lives. "They've learned that they can't control the environment—but what they can control is their reaction to it," he says. "They use stress as a positive, and they actually look forward to it, because they know they can learn to deal with it. And then the next time, they won't have the same negative reaction."
That's the end goal, of course. But in the meantime? Try one of these unique stress-busters to cool down when you feel like you're going out of your mind:
Blow up a balloon. Your body needs oxygen to relax—and when you're stressed, you're likely to take short, shallow breaths. Blowing up a balloon forces you to breathe more slowly and deeply, since you're using your diaphragm. It also activates your parasympathetic nervous system, reducing your heart rate and relaxing your muscles. Another tactic: Tell yourself that every time you open a door during the workday, you'll take a deep breath, Friedman suggests.
Try laughter yoga. Children laugh an average of 140 times a day—adults, only 12 to 14. "There's a lot to be said about laughing," Friedman says. "You release an endorphin every time you laugh, and those are 200 times stronger than morphine." Laughter yoga, which is popping up nationwide, blends attempts to provoke laughter via eye contact and childlike playfulness with breathing exercises. If you're laughing on the outside—even if you're initially faking it—it will create an effect on the inside that triggers the release of endorphins, combating stress.
Make up a language. Abba gabba beee du jaaah. Know what that is? Gibberish. Create a nonsensical language, and then use it to have a conversation with a friend. You'll sound ridiculous, and you'll laugh. And in the process, you'll de-stress.
Play the drums. Friedman was 12 years old, growing up in Jamaica, and picked on daily by his peers. "I would go home and play my drums, and the anger, humiliation, and stress would evaporate," he says. Years later, after completing a degree in counseling psychology, he launched a drumming program at a local spa, and ultimately opened a company designed to reduce stress through drumming. He recalls a businessman who jumped out of his chair and began leaping around the room. For the first time in 40 years, the man said, his chronic back pain had disappeared. "I've found that drumming allows you to have fun, stay in the present moment, and release stress—consciously and unconsciously," Friedman says. "It allows us to reach internalized emotions that need to come out."
Call your mom. Researchers have found that when young girls are in stressful situations, hearing the sound of their mom's voice reduces stress hormones while boosting levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. Dial home and reap the good vibes.
Take a break from the news. Turn off the TV. Shut down your laptop. Stack those newspapers and magazines in the corner. "Sometimes you need to take a temporary vacation from world events to clear your head, reduce your worries, and put your life in perspective," says Richard Blonna, a professor at William Patterson University in New York who specializes in stress management. Try it out for a week, and don't feel guilty: "Most of the important stories will still be around next week, and if not, you can go back and read them," Blonna says.